Nektar Secures Collaborative Deal with SFJ to Advance Head and Neck Cancer Therapy

Nektar_Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Clinical-stage cancer and auto-immune disease company Nektar Therapeutics has entered into a financing and co-development collaboration with SFJ Pharmaceuticals which will advance the development of investigational CD122-preferential IL-2–pathway agonist bempegaldesleukin for head and neck cancer.

SFJ Pharmaceuticals, a global drug development company funded by Abingworth and Blackstone Life Sciences, has agreed to contribute approximately $150 million to support a new Phase II/III registrational clinical study of bempegaldesleukin. The study will combine the investigational agent with pembrolizumab in patients with head and neck cancer expressing PD-L1. Under the terms of the agreement, Nektar will serve as the study’s sponsor.

"This innovative collaboration with SFJ provides Nektar with substantial non-dilutive funding to broaden the registrational program for BEMPEG," according to a statement made by Howard Robin, President and Chief Executive Officer of Nektar Therapeutics. "SFJ's global drug development and clinical trial management expertise, coupled with a track record of success in accelerating and advancing late-stage development programs for global pharmaceutical companies, make them an ideal partner."

In return of the $150 million offered by SFJ, Nektar will pay the company success-based milestone payments each year for over seven to eight years. The funding will be based on whether or not certain U.S. regulatory approvals are issued for specified indications of the investigational therapy. Milestone payments will also be made once the study has been completed, which is expected in 2024. Nektar will not be subjected to pay future payments tied to an indication that isn’t approved if bempegaldesleukin does not receive approval for one or more of the desired indications.

"We are excited to be partnering with Nektar under this novel financing and co-development agreement," said SFJ’s Chief Executive Officer Bob DeBenedetto. "Based on the strength of the clinical data generated to date for BEMPEG in melanoma and other tumor types, and following an extensive diligence process conducted in conjunction with our partners at Blackstone Life Sciences and Abingworth, we believe that BEMPEG has great potential to help cancer patients. We look forward to supporting the Phase 3 study and working closely with the Nektar team."

Nektar has also entered a similar drug-development deal with Merck to advance a Phase II/III study of bempegaldesleukin in combination with Merck's KEYTRUDA® (pembrolizumab) as first-line treatment of metastatic or unresectable recurrent squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck with tumors expressing PD-L1. Shares in Nektar rose more than 13% on the morning of the announcement of the Merck collaborative and supply agreement.

The news of the collaboration deal swiftly follows lawsuits filed by two Nektar Therapeutics shareholders against its directors alleging the latter party sold $171 million of company stock at figures inflated by a fraudulent narrative boosting the findings of trials for its experimental cancer immunotherapy. A similar lawsuit in 2020 claimed Nektar mislead investors about results of clinical trials of its investigational cancer drug. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge.

According to the most recent lawsuit, board members of the company boasted “rosy business prospects,” citing 30-fold increases in cancer-fighting immune cells. These claims were allegedly based on “cherry-picked data” that reflected averages which were “skewed” by an “outlier.”

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